The benefits that physical exercise confers on cardiovascular health are well known, whereas the notion that physical exercise can also improve cognitive performance has only recently begun to be explored and has thus far yielded only controversial results. In the present study, we used a sample of young male subjects to test the effects that a single bout of aerobic exercise has on learning. Two tasks were run: the first was an orientation discrimination task involving the primary visual cortex, and the second was a simple thumb abduction motor task that relies on the primary motor cortex. Forty-four and forty volunteers participated in the first and second experiments, respectively. We found that a single bout of aerobic exercise can significantly facilitate learning mechanisms within visual and motor domains and that these positive effects can persist for at least 30 minutes following exercise. This finding suggests that physical activity, at least of moderate intensity, might promote brain plasticity. By combining physical activity-induced plasticity with specific cognitive training-induced plasticity, we favour a gradual up-regulation of a functional network due to a steady increase in synaptic strength, promoting associative Hebbian-like plasticity.
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